If on an early Spring afternoon a bibliophagist, on the island of Salt Spring, seeking respite from the cold, steady, seasonal hard drizzle, should wander into the Program Room of the Public Library with a like-minded group of history buffs, equally determined in attendance despite the elements, they would have found themselves rewarded with a lavish snack table bursting out to its corners with freshly-baked kale chips, several varieties of cheese and crackers, hummus, sliced fruits and veggies, moist apple cake, and other homemade delights — a delectable gustatory complement to the "Ruckles' World: A History of South-East Salt Spring Island" book launch and fundraiser being held within.
If you are relatively new to Salt Spring, let's say a year and a few months, and your knowledge of island history is significantly gap-filled at best, then this was certainly your baptismal event. The Program Room was flanked by two opposite side tables, each holding large, three-panel cardboard displays of enlarged vintage photos from the Salt Spring Archive's collection. The book itself is a 228-page, abundantly illustrated visual feast, with the Archives providing hundreds of images to the author, at no cost — a vital contribution.
The book, and lavish snack table, were both created by Brenda Guiled (pronounced like "wild") — author, publisher, and self-described fish and shellfish illustrator. When asked by one visitor how long the book took her to write, Guiled, who was busily setting up the snack table herself, replied that she was inspired to start writing the book a mere six months ago, so she could use the publication's proceeds as a fundraiser to help move the old Monk farmhouse to Ruckle Park.
It's hard to imagine anyone compiling a document of this size and scope on such short notice. It's an unbelievable achievement, by any measure. There are even seven pages of source notes in the back. (Sadly, the farmhouse was demolished just before the book's release. But preservation's loss is literary history's gain; this book would not have been written otherwise.)
Because the work was so hastily assembled and wordsmithed, playing beat the clock against the bulldozer, there are, by the author's own admission, more than a few occasional spelling errors and lapses in continuity and organization. (If you picked up autographed copy number 20 of 200, it even comes with an old school errata slip glued to the back of the title page.) It's a rough and bumpy read in places, not unlike the early muddy grooves of Fulford-Ganges road. But therein lies one of the book's greatest charms. And it still reads like a champ.
The author's introductory remarks, and the Q&A that followed, were far too brief, owing perhaps to the shyness of the author, but more likely from the sheer exhaustion of her marathon writing accomplishment. One had the feeling she had just finished writing earlier that morning; the ink on the pages had a freshly-printed aroma. But there were no complaints. This was a celebratory social event, not a lecture. In fact, the SRO crowd seemed unable to suffer even one more minute of Canadian politesse before being allowed to hit the snack table beachhead, where they could then pose their questions to the author one-on-one while munching off a plate piled high with goodies.
"Ruckles' World" documents the history and development of the south end of Salt Spring in general and the Ruckle family in particular. The opening pages provide great detail about the native history of the island, then moves into how the island slowly began to form into its present shape once the first "People Who Came Out of Nowhere," the native term for Europeans (sounds about right), arrived in the late 1780s and began mapping out land that had been held in a shared, communal trust for thousands of years before that, redrawing the native people's organic relation to the earth with surveying sticks, official documents, and smallpox-infested blankets.
Henry Ruckle was Irish-born, Ontario-raised, German in custom and habits. After his parents and brother died, Henry sought his fortunes westward, first in California, then northward to Washington, then finally arriving in British Columbia, when land pre-emptions from the Crown in the Gulf Islands were just starting to roll off the Gutenbergs. In 1872, Henry paced out his first 338 acres at Beaver Point, paid the $5 Certificate of Pre-Emption Record, and started tilling away at his legacy. In short time, his farm became one of the largest contributors to agriculture in all of British Columbia. The Ruckle family donated their land to BC Parks in 1972, creating Ruckle Provincial Park — 529 hectares and 7 kilometres of rocky shoreline and beautiful curvy coves and bays. It is the jewel of the island.
You get all the Ruckle you could possibly want from the book, as well as name origins of other familiar Salt Spring lakes, roads and points of interest. Maxwell, Musgrave, Cusheon, Ganges, they're all here, waiting to form new trivia synapse connections in your probably already information over-stuffed head. Five and one-half pages are dedicated to numerous rugged women pioneers of Salt Spring, who played a significant role in land transfers by marrying men with land and then securing the deeds through a simple act of biology, i.e., outliving them. A surprising telling of early African American settler life confirmed stories previously told from sources whose reliability, while certainly not suspect, was nonetheless, until now, unverified.
All the key ethnicities of those early Salt Spring settlers — Hawaiian, Scottish, Greek, German, Norwegian, American — are all given their own chapter-sections, as per the format of the book (although the free jazz style often obscures the outline's intent). Again: this is not a criticism. As any writer with an impossible deadline can attest, these kind of developmental loose threads are never the author's fault. That being said, it's clear that Guiled is so positively engaged in the topic that she can't can't help herself jumping around from one topic to another from one paragraph to the next. Sidebar tangents into the Pig War of 1859 or the settlement of Smyrna by the Greeks in the 1st century B.C. are one of the book's great delights, mirroring the grand, free association style of Sir James George Frazer's "The Golden Bough" or the similarly ADD-isorderly classic in etymology, "Word Origins" by Anatoly Liberman. Not bad company.
A few teaser stories of note, found in just the first 50 pages, are worth relating here. Such as that of Mary Peavine, whose marriage to husband John was as rocky as a Walker's Hook beach stroll at low tide, who died in childbirth with her twins shortly after a beating, and who then began a post-living career as a ghost of the haunting variety; modern visitors unfamiliar with the backstory often claim to see a female spectre wandering the land where she previously lived. Or that of Maria Mahoi, born in 1857 of Hawaiian heritage, a lover of ocean swimming, heir to Russell Island (that tiny squiggle of land the Skeena Queen must need avoid before bouncing into Fulford Harbor), who, in her old age, wrestled to shore a six meter long octopus (that's twenty feet, American cousins) and then proceeded to cook and eat it. (No information is given on how much lemon-basil mayo sauce was prepared.)
Remarkably, nearly every other page or so contains thoroughly captivating historical or biographical nuggets such as these. And this is what makes "Ruckles' World" such a great new addition to the Salt Spring Island history bookshelf. It's undeniably can't-put-down material for those addicted to local history minutiae and obscure trivia that otherwise might be lost to time's eager eraser. A scant 200 copies were published under Guiled's personal imprimatur, Kimae Books. A recent email to the author confirmed that there were a few copies left for purchase. You'd be advised to hurry if you want yours, as there are no plans for a reprint.
The Salt Spring Island COUGAR is open to art, literary works, poetry, creative non-fiction, photography, and other submissions from local residents.